Radical media, politics and culture.

McKenzie Wark, "The Aims of Education"

The Aims of Education McKenzie Wark

My fellow educators (by which I mean everyone, as we are all educators). Since our topic today is the aims of education, I thought I would start by imagining how my students would approach such a question. I imagine the first thing they would do is: consult the oracle. Not the oracle of Delphi, the oracle of The Daily Show: Jon Stewart.

Not long ago Jon Stewart’s guest on The Daily Show was Tim Pawlenty, the human face of conservatism. While Stewart lobbed surprisingly softball questions at him, Governor Pawlenty explained how we can completely privatize education. Students will just buy their education a course at a time via iTunes on their iPads. Along with downloads of Lady Gaga videos and, for that matter, The Daily Show, you could just download Philosophy 101, or more likely, Marketing 101. I’ll come back to this vision, both thrilling and chilling, of education.

Students don’t get all their information by consulting the oracle. They also practice a complex kind of divination using randomly cast spells, or in other words, Google. Using Google somewhat carelessly, one gets at least a fair glimpse of what commonsense opinion is about the aims of education. This commonsense opinion about education is curiously contradictory.

One finds, for example, that American education is a complete failure, and yet it is the best in the world. One finds that everything can be fixed so long as the private sector does it, and yet the private sector can only fix education with massive amounts of public money. As to whether education is working on not, this is a simple matter of administering standardized tests. And yet what education produces when it works is unique and creative individuals.

On the more specific question of the aims of education, one finds surprisingly little, other than this striking paradox: the aim of education is just to get people jobs, and yet at the same time it is supposed to create well rounded, ethical individuals imbued with the American spirit of service and citizenship. This is what a student using Google may or may not discover.

Now, it’s a commonplace among educators to make cynical remarks about our students. And while I don’t doubt that my own Lang College students really do get some of their knowledge of the world from Jon Stewart and Google, I also think they can stand back and think critically about just such so-called knowledge.

The first thing I would imagine a critical student of education today would discover is this: knowledge is supposed to be different from doxa, from the received and unreflective opinion from which it struggles to free itself. And yet education, the process of producing and reproducing knowledge, is nothing if not surrounded by doxa.

For those of us on the inside as it were, for those of us who are educators, the struggle is to separate knowledge from doxa, from habit, from prejudice, from the self-evident. We educators don’t take kindly to groupthink, or to compulsory agreement. For instance, I took a job at SUNY once, and they made me sign an oath of loyalty to New York State. Imagine that: a loyalty oath, to New York State. I immediately started thinking about how I might betray my state, and become a secret agent of Connecticut, or maybe one of the Dakotas.

In short, as educators, we are surrounded on the outside by those for whom education is nothing but the continuation of doxa, of the contradictory world of opinion, to which one is supposed to swear allegiance. Our position seems an embattled one. Education seems to be in crisis. But when was it not in crisis? Perhaps there’s comfort in the thought that crisis is our business – and business is lively. At least we are not, like Socrates, obliged to drink the hemlock, although if standardized testing makes its way into higher education, hemlock might seem preferable.

In the west at least, we tend to take the Greeks to be our ancestors in creating institutions of critical knowledge, within and against the social realm. What the schools of philosophy were to the Greeks: the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Peripatetics, the modern university is to us. And like us the Greeks also had institutions for producing doxa. What the theater was to the Greeks Hollywood is to us. What Sophists were to the Greeks, lawyers, consultants and lobbyists are to us.

One would not want to push this comparison too far. Aristotle did not have to grade papers. But three things seem to me worth dwelling upon. Firstly: in what way did Greek thought diverge from the doxa of its time? How was it able to think beyond its social conditions of production? Secondly: it what way were the limits of Greek thought the limits, not of a form of knowledge, but of the social order from which it sprang? Thirdly: what more ambiguous and unacknowledged legacies have the Greeks left us?

Greek thought diverged from doxa by a critical reflection on it in its own terms. This is Socrates at work: what do we mean by justice? What do we mean by faith? What do we mean by education? We can free thinking from certain habits. We can use language with an awareness of what it is and how it works.

This is the negative aim of education. This aim of education is to work in and against common sense. At this the Greeks excelled. While the sophists were busy teaching everyone how to be their own lobbyist, Socrates begins a quite different practice. One that separates thought from interest narrowly and immediately conceived.

The limits to Greek thought are surely in the positive aims of education, in terms of what one creates and maintains in the place of doxa. This is where the limits of a social order start to impinge and set limits on what can be thought.

As the product of an aristocratic culture in a slave society, Greek thought is famously uninterested in the practical arts. The Greeks were brilliant designers, in architecture, in the applied arts, and their greatest achievement in the sciences – geometry – surely owes as much to the skilled labor of the artisan as to the philosopher, but you wouldn’t know it from reading their philosophers.

Greek thought was hostile to the performing arts, but nevertheless owed unacknowledged debts to it. My Lang College colleague Paul Kottman has written quite persuasively on how Plato takes the act of seeing the sphere of political action with one’s own eyes (thea) and empties it of all its material and embodied content. Political theater becomes political theory.

Kottman is close here to a line of thought that is foundational for my own discipline, media studies. Plato is ambivalent about his own medium, about writing. The written text goes out into the world as an orphan, departing from the aristocratic realm in which knowing the parentage of everyone and everything is all important.

Put simply: the aristocratic slave city-state produced a knowledge that could separate itself in part from everyday doxa, but which was indifferent to the design of things, ignored its debt to the performing arts, and was ambivalent about its own form of communication.

If the limitations of Greek thought derive from the aristocratic and slave nature of its society, surely in our modern democracy we have transcended those limitations. America, as de Tocqueville showed, is a democratic culture which, whatever its limitations, at least stands aside from those that bind aristocratic orders.

It seems every other month the New York Times Book Review is giving space to some new rehash of de Tocqueville, which makes me wonder if de Tocqueville is not now a very pure kind of American doxa. Is it not possible that America today is an aristocratic society? Perhaps an aristocracy of a new type?

To cap it all, this new kind of aristocratic order also has one of the worst features of Athenian democracy: the demagogues. Alongside Marketing 101 and Lady Gaga, students might also be downloading Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh podcasts.

Spend any time with our contemporary demagogues, and one is reminded of the pioneering media sociology done at the New School in the 40s by Hans Speier. What he called post-democratic communication was characterized by contempt for reason, by slogans, rumors and emotional blackmail. It appealed to a mass population that lacked a sense of social obligation and yet which did not feel in control of its own destiny. Does this not sound like a blueprint for Fox News and its Tea Party progeny?

In such a context, the first aim of education might be to endure. To persist against a public that complains about the cost of education but still wants the lifetime benefit of the higher income that a college education affords. To survive against a pseudo-private sector which thinks business can do it better, but only by getting government subsidized loans for students to whom it offers marginally useful training programs. To survive against demagogues who threaten the integrity of education because nothing is a greater threat to demagogues than education. To survive against a kind of techno fetishism, which imagines the solution to everything is a new product from Apple.

Of these dangers I want to speak only about one. The economics of education I leave to the economists. The less said about demagogues the better. President Kerry has been prescient and articulate in addressing the dangers of for-profit education. I want rather to say a few words about the last, about Governor Pawlenty’s vision of an education – fully privatized – but also downloadable onto your iPad.

This is partly because this is closest to my field of media studies, and partly because it’s the subject of a major conference being organized here at the New School by my Lang College colleague Trebor Scholz.

Plato is right to worry, in the Phaedrus, about what happens to the written text that goes out like an orphan into the world. But it is not as if orality, oral communication, was a guarantee against it. Orphaned oral communication is called the rumor. Likewise, its not the lecture downloaded from iTunes that’s the problem. It’s the severance of the downloaded ‘content’ from the reciprocal practice of question and comment between teachers and students. Education is not content, in other words, but a particular kind of communicative process.

What might lead one to forget this, however, is viewing education solely as a commodity. Commodities by definition have measurable values and occur in simple transactions between a buyer and seller, whose obligations to each other are limited. Whatever education is, it is not just a commodity. It is always, at the same time, a gift relation, a relation that binds its parties in mutual obligation, and in which giving away ones attention is what produces value. Education values the gift of attention. Education is the valuing of the gift of attention.

Part of the challenge of being at The New School is that the legacy of this school prevents one from ducking the demands of a changing social order. Being at the New School obliges us to come up with an education that can respond both to what this social order is, and which is yet also aware of its deficits. Being part of the New School is a special obligation. Sometimes I think we should just change the name of The New School to The Old School and make it easy on ourselves. But while we continue to be The New School, we are both custodians of the past and custodians of the future.

Interestingly, the elements that did not come together for the Greeks are the same ones which do not really come together in this strange new aristocratic America. And they are also the same elements in which The New School has areas of particular strength: design, the performing arts, media and their relation to what we would now call a social science indebted to philosophy. We have a unique opportunity to experiment with new alignments between these fundamental kinds of communicative practice.

What would a future education look like which did not divorce the making of the thing from the creation of its concept? Which acknowledged the dependence of knowledge on culture, as well as their difference? Which treated the new digital forms of communication as a genuine domain of free inquiry?

Stanley Fish is the author of a persuasive and influential argument to the effect that the aim of education in any discipline is simply to produce good quality work within the discipline. Of course the existence of the New School is itself a refutation of that argument. It was founded by people who were not content just to dig their disciplinary burrows deeper. They saw the aim of education as a broader working on the difference between received ideas and knowledge as the critique of received ideas. They saw that the tensions of the social order passed through education itself, and hence education could not merely perfect itself as a thing apart.

The founders of the New School were not dogmatists. They had no program to impose on anyone. As one of our founders, James Harvey Robinson put it: “I have no reforms to recommend, accept the liberation of intelligence.” And yet that in itself is enough. The aim of education is the liberation of intelligence, from dogma, prejudice, superstition, sophistry, slogans, fear-mongering, naïveté, spin, trivia, pedantry, wishful thinking and the rest. The aim of education is to negate the given, and in so doing, throw into sharp relief both what is right and what is wrong with the social order. Education is not outside of the incessant struggle to make the world. It is one of the essential moments of that struggle.

The aim of education is to be a provocation to thought; the aim of thought is the renovation of the world.